What is root cause analysis?

Mark Galley

 Depending on who you ask, there are completely different explanations to “What is root cause analysis?” Some think it’s a collection of several different tools like barrier analysis, 5-Whys and the Fishbone. Others think it’s a specific method – usually the one they were trained in. Some think root cause analysis should categorize an incident into human error, procedure-not-followed or training-less-than-adequate. Others think root cause analysis identifies different types of causes like basic, intermediate and main. There is much confusion about “What is root cause analysis?”

Don’t confuse consistent with effective

Everyone seems to agree that root cause analysis is about solving problems, but there’s no agreement as to how a root cause analysis is done. Approaches vary across industries and organizations. In an effort to be more consistent, a company will train all employees on the same technique and terminology. But if the approach is confusing, problem solving will be consistently poor.

It's not the root cause

Most believe the purpose of a root cause analysis is to find the “root cause” of a problem. If it’s called root cause analysis, the objective (obviously) is to find the “root cause.” It’s not. Searching for the root cause seems reasonable, but it reveals how confused people are by the basics of cause-and-effect. Cause-and-effect appears too simple, because it’s fundamental. The basis of the scientific method is cause-and-effect relationships supported with evidence.

Root cause analysis - the concept

Root cause analysis is an excellent term for problem solving because a weed is a perfect metaphor for a problem. As you already know, if you just pull the top off the weed, it will grow back. To get rid of the weed, you must get the root. Recurring problems in your business are analogous to weeds. They’re evidence that your problems solving approach needs improvement.

Dig into the details

The top of the weed, the part above the ground, is obvious. Everyone can see it. But that weed is just the symptom of the underlying stuff. The root, the part beneath the surface, needs to be uncovered. This can take some digging. Root cause analysis digs into the details, to get a thorough understanding of an issue, to find the best solutions. That is effective problem solving.

The root of a problem

The root is the source of the problem, but it doesn’t trace back to a single point. The root consists of multiple paths - each one contributing to the overall issue. A thorough explanation of a problem reveals these different causal paths to show how they’re connected. The incident is a system consisting of parts. There is no one root cause that produced an issue. This point is regularly confused.

Better solution options

Recognizing the incident as a system is essential in the solutions step. More causes don’t require more solutions. More causes simply provide more opportunities to find better solutions. Most people mistakenly believe that each cause needs a solution. This is not true.

fire_triangleThe fire triangle is comprised of heat, fuel and oxygen, but to prevent a fire, only one of these elements needs to be controlled. This logic is not unique to fire. It’s simple cause-and-effect. 


Don’t drift from the basics

The root in root cause analysis refers to a system of causes, not a type of cause. Any attempt to differentiate important causes from less important ones distorts the issue and artificially restricts the solutions to a smaller set. Root cause analysis should make your problems clearer, not confusing. Ask your peers and your management “What is root cause analysis?” to get a better understanding of where your organization is now. Staying grounded in the basics of the scientific method is a sound approach – not fluff.

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